Have you ever seen a burning bush?
I did, on a trip to Southern California. Several years ago, my husband Steve and I took a detour to see the Crystal Cathedral. Not only was the worship space dramatic and huge–they used to have major productions of the Christmas and Easter stories that included live animals on stage–but they had monuments on the grounds intended to bring biblical events to life. I must say I found it a bit disconcerting to walk beside a reflecting pool and see a seven-foot statue of Jesus in mid-stride walking on the water, with his arm raised in greeting. That was where I saw the burning bush–it was a statue of the bush, and it was piped for gas so that flame shot out of the tip of each branch! There was a statue of Moses too, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments (which was rushing the narrative somewhat). It was realistic, but it missed so much of what the story has to tell us. The Sunday lectionary, the arrangement of readings from scripture, allows you to hear most of the Bible if you come to church every Sunday for three years (and I recommend that you do!) But a little research revealed that none of the early stories of Moses’ life are part of the Sunday lectionary–so this moment at the burning bush is the first time we meet Moses.
What has happened to Moses before this? He was born into slavery in Egypt. He was in danger from the first slaughter of the innocents–Pharaoh feared how numerous the Hebrew slaves were becoming, and he ordered that all the infant boys be murdered so they would not arise in battle against him. Moses’ mother protected him by preparing a floating basket, and sending him out into the Nile just upriver from where one of Pharaoh’s daughters was bathing with her handmaids. Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket, and decided to rescue the Hebrew child raising him as her own. She named him Moses, an Egyptian name meaning “I drew him out of the waters.” He was raised in the palace, away from his people and culture, until the day he observed an Egyptian overseer abusing a Hebrew slave who was one of his kinsmen. Outraged and angry, Moses struck the Egyptian when he thought no one could see him. He buried the overseer in the sand. The next day, he was arguing with another Hebrew who said, “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was afraid he would be punished for what he did, and fled Egypt, to the land of Midian (on the Arabian peninsula), where in time he married and became a shepherd.
We meet Moses here as an exile: a refugee shepherd with anger management problems, walking with sheep in the ownerless desert.
Then a miracle occurs. There is a bush, burning in the desert but not consumed by the flames, and Moses turns aside to see it. God speaks to Moses from the bush. He calls him: “Moses! Moses!” And Moses says: “Here I am!” “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is Holy Ground.”
Have you ever stood on Holy Ground?
Holy ground is that place where you encounter God’s presence. A church is holy ground. I have often wondered why we don’t take off our shoes when we enter a church. That is certainly the tradition in Islam–for worshippers to take off their shoes when they enter. I suppose the arc of our tradition that led us through Northern Europe, and cold stone churches, made bare feet an impractical choice. Although, a clergy friend did tell me that some preachers kick off their shoes when they enter the pulpit.
So Moses was standing on holy ground, and God called him to lead the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. And Moses said… No! He argued and objected from his first breath. Who am I? he asked. Who are YOU? What is your name? What if they don’t believe me? What if they kill me? God answered with patience and help, with signs and wonders, and ultimately with the unimaginable generosity of revelation of God’s divine being: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. I AM who I AM, or a better translation: I WILL BE who I WILL BE. God is indefinable Being: immanent and transcendent. Immanent in the personal conversation, the very awareness of Moses’s feet; and transcendent in the fiery vision of the bush–the one God unbounded by time or physical being.
This encounter is so rich–there is so much to explore in the story! I am fortunate to meet for lunch with a clergy group almost every Friday. We gather for conversation and study: we are Jewish, Unitarian, Baptist, Lutheran and Episcopalian. I couldn’t resist asking them about this story: Moses! Burning Bush! What have you got?
The senior Rabbi said: It is a miracle story, which can be tricky.
Are you asking people to focus on the miracle? Or is the teaching more important? Anyway, the miracle is not that the bush was burning! The bush could have been burning since Creation! The miracle is that Moses turned aside to look. Then God entered the bush. The important thing is the communication between the human and the Divine.
I was on the coast north of Boston, on retreat. A quiet whisper drew me out to the water, and as each wave hit the rocks, I saw spray shoot into the air. As the sun shot through each droplet I saw a full arc of a rainbow in the spray. Then the spray dropped to the ground and the rainbow disappeared. Then another wave sent the spray up again, and another rainbow formed. I watched this happen over and over, awash in the miracle of creation. Then I turned and saw the Burning Bush. I was transfixed. When I was finally able to form thoughts I realized it was a sumac bush that was covered with the same tiny droplets of water from the spray, lit with the blazing sunlight so that every leaf, every twig, every branch blazed with the light of the sun.
After she finished speaking we were all quiet for several minutes. Then a priest said: I have stood on Holy Ground. Years ago, I served in Newfoundland. People there always took off their shoes to go into the house; there was so much dirt and salt that if they tracked it in it would fill their houses. Communication wasn’t always good there, especially if you were in a remote area. One day there was an accident; someone working on the roads in the far north was killed by an eighteen-wheeler. Normally, it would have taken weeks to get the news, but someone was there with him, and he had a cell phone so he called and the family found out immediately. The news went through the whole community like lightning. I got a call and went to visit the family right away. When the door opened I could see the entryway. There was a mountain of shoes in the middle. All I could think of was this passage: “Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.” Each pair of shoes represented a person who had come to this family in their time of grief, to offer love and care.
This encounter with God, the I AM who is both immanent and transcendent, makes me think of one of Anne Lamott’s great prayers. She is a writer about religion and life who brings humor into the conversation. She says there are three great prayers, which make up the title of her most recent book. The first great prayer is Help! It is the prayer the Hebrews prayed to God when they were enslaved in Egypt. The second great prayer is Thanks! That is the prayer that the Hebrews said when they reached the Promised Land. And the third great prayer seems like the one we can pray today, in response to Moses’ encounter with God. The third great prayer is: Wow!
As you walk through this season of Lent, I encourage you to dig your toes into Holy Ground, and feast your eyes on the blazing signs of God’s glory. And say Wow! at every opportunity.